Counseling Parents about Permanency Options

By Arthur, Heidi; Higgins, Selina | Children's Voice, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview
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Counseling Parents about Permanency Options

Arthur, Heidi, Higgins, Selina, Children's Voice

One of the most challenging aspects for child welfare workers working with families facing an unplanned pregnancy or struggling with the care of a newborn baby can be setting aside personal convictions and helping clients make choices that are right for them and their families.

Whether a worker's perspective springs from cultural expectations, personal beliefs and values, or simply a habituated family-preservation practice model, it's easy to make and share assumptions that, ultimately, can have a profound effect on many lives.

In 2003, New York City's Administration for Children's Services and Spence-Chapin Services, a private adoption agency, partnered to establish the Collaboration for Permanency to train child welfare workers to provide Options Counseling. In its simplest form, Options Counseling means asking parents directly: "How do you feel about your pregnancy?" and "How do you feel about parenting this child?" The approach encourages families to explore and express their feelings and thoughts concerning their ability and desire to parent. It also requires workers to discard their assumptions, set aside their personal values, and explore all options with expectant families.

Every woman or couple facing critical decisions in the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy needs counseling about all available options, including parenting, pregnancy termination, kinship adoption, and voluntary adoption through the private sector. When families do not have the opportunity to consider all of their permanency possibilities, they may be steered toward parenting inadvertently, which may not have been their choice had they been fully informed of all options. The consequences can be devastating to children and their families.

"Often, professionals whose work is geared toward keeping families together do not fully explore options with pregnant women," says Susan Watson, Director of Birth Parent Services at SpenceChapin. "But leaving out possible options does not empower families and gives workers' assumptions too much authority."

Watson remembers, "The collaboration initially began when Spence-Chapin offered trainings to help clarify the ways voluntary adoption differs from the involuntary adoption most commonly seen in the public sector. Many professionals were unaware that birthfamilies can choose the adoptive family for their baby and that they can have an open adoption and maintain contact with their child. But when we began to describe our agency's practice of voluntary adoption, they were just as interested in learning more about our approach to comprehensive options counseling."

The training curriculum developed through the collaboration, Permanency Planning for Babies: A Counseling Model for Early Planning, is founded on the belief that babies require the earliest permanency possible in order to form secure attachments to stable care providers.

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